Voices from the Arab press: Social media and credibility

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

A DISINFECTION company employee sanitizes a closed school in Sidon, Lebanon, on February 29 (photo credit: ALI HASHISHO/REUTERS)
A DISINFECTION company employee sanitizes a closed school in Sidon, Lebanon, on February 29
(photo credit: ALI HASHISHO/REUTERS)
Al-Etihad, UAE, April 9
As the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold, so does the problem of rumors and fake news.
It is difficult to persuade the masses, especially millennials (born between 1985 and 1995) and Gen Z’ers (born between 1996 and 2010) to abandon social media platforms and replace them with traditional media, simply because the latter are perceived by younger generations as more credible. Younger generations grew up with digital media and what appeals to them is the flexibility and interactivity of social media platforms, which traditional media outlets lack. As a result, social media has become an indispensable source of information for millions of people around the world.
Yet at the same time, social media platforms are a breeding ground for dangerous rumors. Even the director-general of the World Health Organization claimed that what we are currently fighting is not just the coronavirus but also the misinformation epidemic. Indeed, threatening our world with misinformation, hatred and fear can be more dangerous than threatening it with a virus.
Given these circumstances, the World Health Organization has recently taken to social media platforms to spread science-backed content related to the coronavirus epidemic. One of the organization’s hand-washing tutorial videos, for example, became viral on TikTok, a platform used by 16 – to 24-year-olds worldwide. Similar campaigns were launched on LinkedIn and Twitter with the hope of reaching older and more professional audiences.
It is important to use all methods available at our disposal to combat fake news and rumors, but it is unreasonable to expect the public to stop using social media platforms because of credibility issues. Therefore, anyone interested in ensuring the spread of credible news – including health providers, government agencies, and commercial bodies – must follow the WHO’s footsteps and become active on social media, where they can attract the masses with interactive content.
– Najat Al-Saeed
Nida Al-Watan, Lebanon, April 7
Despite the sincerity of Dr. Tarek Majzoub, the Lebanese education minister, the man is failing at his job.
In a recent interview given to Murr Television, Majzoub totally failed to convince the Lebanese public that the state’s education system will prevail in this coronavirus crisis and that his ministry will safeguard the interests of students and schoolteachers.
While I appreciate the minister’s insistence on protecting the lives of teachers and students by asking them to stay home, Majzoub does not seem to realize that his mission is not limited to experimenting with distance education. That is, His Excellency does not seem to understand that his mission is not to merely convert in-person learning to remote learning. Rather, it is to help a failing and under-resourced system overcome one of the most serious crises it has ever faced.
Public education will be one of the strongest-hit services in the post-corona world. Shrinking incomes will put enormous pressure on public schools and universities that are already fighting for limited revenues. To save these institutions, the government will have no choice but to offer them cash lifelines. In contrast, private schools will be able to overcome this crisis. They will continue to attract the wealthiest families in Lebanon.
The ministry’s ultimate objective right now shouldn’t be to improve digital education. It should be to enable equal educational opportunities for Lebanon’s students, regardless of income level, and to adapt our primary and secondary education systems to the 21st century. Ultimately, of course, the goal is to increase our graduates’ competency in a globalized labor market. These are the real concerns that his excellency should focus on, instead of taking to television studios and talking about “distance learning.”
The coronavirus crisis may be unfortunate, but it also hides an opportunity to turn a new page on the government’s handling of education. What Lebanon desperately needs, Your Excellency, is a well-functioning Education Ministry that is ready to implement a long-awaited reform in our country’s education system. This includes training and investing in teaching staff, the inclusion of local municipalities in shaping educational programs, the revamping of outdated curricula, and the introduction of new assessment methods.
– Bechara Charbel
Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt, April 9
If you have not heard the recent televised speech delivered by Dr. Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, I urge you to find it online and watch it: once, twice, and perhaps even three times!
While I watched it quarantined at home, the noble sheikh, in his fine noble words, managed to take me to all corners of the world. If you listen to the speech, you will discover that every one of Al-Tayyeb’s words has been carefully chosen. Every verse he quotes has been carefully curated. You will quickly discover that the sheikh speaks the language of religion, knowledge, and most importantly, of humanity.
Sheikh al-Tayyeb proudly and unambiguously declared that Al-Azhar stands in solidarity with the peoples and nations of the world, without distinction between one country, one nation, or one religion, and another. His support extended beyond language, color, breed, or race. He spoke with compassion and humanity because he knows that this is the true essence and spirit of Islam.
He spoke with love and kindness because he truly believes that God Almighty seeks to cure all of those who have been affected by this disease in the world, even outside of Egypt and the Muslim world. The noble sheikh spoke with knowledge because he believes it is important to thank our doctors and nurses, our scientists and our public health officials, who risk their lives day in and day out to save those of others.
The beautiful speech given by the grand imam represented everything that is beautiful about Islam and about Egypt. He reminded us yet again of the altruistic values for which Al-Azhar, and all Muslim people around the world, stand.
– Suleiman Jawda
Asharq Al-Awsat, London, April 9
Is Twitter politically independent as its leaders claim or is the popular social network influenced by global politics?
A recent report published by the French News Agency reveals that Twitter deleted thousands of accounts associated with users in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, under the pretext that they were receiving direct support from government officials. What all these accounts had in common is that their owners published posts critical of Qatar and Turkey, calling into attention the practices of these countries’ respective governments.
One account that had been shut in Egypt, for example, received a notice from Twitter that it violated the platform’s community standards for “attacking Qatar and supporting the Egyptian state.” The account’s owner, Mina Salah, spoke to the press and claimed, “We are indeed pro-Egypt, but we aren’t taking instructions from anyone. We’re simply defending our country and questioning the policies of the regimes in Iran, Turkey, and Qatar!”
Sadly, this behavior from Twitter is in line with the left-wing liberal policies that we’ve been seeing directed against countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which refuse to abide by this trendy agenda of so-called “liberalism.” These very actors who call for freedom and democracy are supporting violent political Islam groups that undermine the very values these individuals seek to promote.
Under the banner of liberal values, these movements restrict freedom of expression. A notable Arab producer recently told me that when he contacted a large social media platform to publish his documentary film exploring Turkish propaganda pertaining to Ottoman history, the latter refused to upload such content to the Web.
Clearly, social media companies like Twitter are exercising subjective value judgments in deciding what content they allow on their platform. Like all of us, they, too, have their agendas and political worldview.
– Meshari Al-Dhaidi
Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb